“Bliss” is the second feature from Sheng Zhimin and is very much in line with the likes of Jia Zhangke’s “Still Life” and the works of other sixth generation Chinese directors, being a critical, realistic look at modern life. As expected, this has made the film a prime candidate for international festivals, at which it certainly played its share, managing to win the Netpac Award at Locarno and being nominated for the Grand Prix at Flanders. Although this might worryingly suggest it to be another cryptic and wilfully vague piece of non-traditional cinema, in fact Sheng surprises by paying as much attention to his characters and their stories as to lofty intellectual concerns, resulting in what stands as one of the more genuine and open films of its type.
The film follows a family in the central Chinese city of Chongqing made up of retired policeman Li (He Xingquan), his second wife Zhang (Guan Jiangge) and their two sons from former marriages. Neither of the younger generation are doing too well, with Li’s son Jianjun (Liao Zhong) working long hours as a taxi driver, putting strain on his new marriage, and Zhang’s son Xiaolei (Xu Tao) running wild with a gang of hooligans. After Li is sent the ashes of his ex-wife, he begins the search for a new family burial plot, at the same time trying to hold their lives together.
“Bliss” is basically a slice of life drama with art house leanings, attempting to examine, or perhaps simply to depict the changing nature of family and marriage in modern China. Director Sheng takes a decidedly unhurried, naturalistic approach, introducing his characters almost casually and without any obvious narrative hooks, then proceeding to drift between them in what initially seems to be a rather aimless manner. The film certainly takes its time in developing subplots, with the drama emerging slowly and remaining very understated throughout, even though quite a lot does actually happen including surprise revelations, extra marital relationships, deaths and even a few bursts of violence. As such, the film is a good example of patient storytelling, which kind of sneaks up on the viewer, slowly opening up the characters’ lives in subtly engrossing fashion.
It is this quality which sets the film apart from the somewhat similar “Still Life” and other works by Jia Zhangke, with whom Sheng has worked in the past, as although the two directors share a keen eye for the details of everyday life and a fondness for long, lingering tracking shots of nothing in particular, “Bliss” is refreshingly unpretentious and relatively free from obscurity. The two films do cover some similar ground, mainly the theme of change in modern China, with Sheng here using images of urbanisation and industry to reflect shifts in morality. However, whereas Jia’s characters are blanks and ciphers, “Bliss” is rooted in its human story, with its intellectual aspects complimenting the drama and although the film does to an extent eschew traditional narrative, it does so without degenerating into inscrutability. Certainly, it still requires a measure of perseverance on the part of the viewer, though while melancholy (the English title is presumably supposed to be ironic) the film is neither distant nor dull.
It helps that “Bliss” is a handsome film with a strong visual aspect, filled with muted colours and mist, and with Sheng making the most out of the contrast between the older run down buildings and the garish neon of modern developments. The film does have a documentary feel at times, with the camera unobtrusive throughout, and this serves well to bring the viewer closer to the characters. There is a fair bit of art house nonsense on show which unfortunately does detract a little from the overall effect, with Sheng frequently fading to black in the middle of scenes and either allowing conversations to trail off into long silences or cutting off characters mid-dialogue.
However, this is pretty much to be expected for a film of this type, and “Bliss” for the most part manages to satisfy both as gloomy drama and art house ponderousness. Although perhaps less accomplished, the film is arguably more accessible than “Still Life”, and Sheng shows an unexpectedly human touch which makes the proceedings far less remote and more emotionally affecting than they might have been.
Zhimin Sheng (director) / Zheng Gu, Zhimin Sheng (screenplay)
CAST: Jiang-ge Guan … Xiue
Xing-quan He … Lao Li
Zhong Liao … Jian-jun
Lan Wang … Sun Xiao-hong
Tao Xu … Lei